Black and proud – two women challenge historical narratives, using art as a catalyst for change. Virgin Islands artist La Vaughn Belle and Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers have collaborated to create a monumental public sculpture entitled I AM QUEEN MARY, revealed on Saturday, March 31, 2018, at the Danish West Indian Warehouse in Copenhagen. This project is the first collaborative sculpture to memorialize Denmark’s colonial impact on the Caribbean and those who fought against it. It is also the first public sculpture of a black woman in Denmark.
Tell us about your project.
In 2017, as the 100-year anniversary of the sale and transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States approached, there were many questions as to how to commemorate such an occasion. We were approached by a Danish researcher, Helle Stenum, who thought that a trans-Atlantic project was needed as a way to create a dialogue.
What does the sculpture “I Am Queen Mary” depict?
The sculpture, entitled “I Am Queen Mary,” positioned in front of a colonial warehouse used to house people and goods being transported across the Atlantic, represents a hybrid not only of our previous projects but our bodies, nations and narratives. The statue depicts the historical figure of Mary Thomas or Queen Mary as she is known in the African Caribbean. She emerged as the most popular leader of the 1878 labor revolt in St. Croix, also known as the “Fireburn,” and one of the most revered heroines in the Virgin Islands.
Since it’s unknown what she actually looked like, we created an allegorical interpretation of her by using 3D-body-scanning technology to combine both of our bodies into one – highlighting what it meant to embody a heroine. Her seated pose is based on a 1967-photograph of Huey P. Newton, leader of the Black Panther party, sitting in a woven peacock chair holding a rifle and a spear. We changed these to a torch and sugarcane bill to reference the resistance strategies used by the colonized in their struggles for freedom. The plinth incorporates coral cut from the ocean by enslaved Africans gathered from ruins of colonial-era buildings on St. Croix – highlighting this labor as the foundation of the wealth produced during the colonial enterprise. Together, these symbols create a multi-layered narrative that challenges Denmark’s role in slavery.
What’s the importance of the sculpture?
There’s an urgent need for alternative representation in public spaces in Denmark, as 98 percent of statues represent white males. A bronze replica of Michelangelo’s sculpture “David” adorns the harbor in front of the West Indian Warehouse, which currently houses the Royal Cast Collection. “David” who represents the biblical hero that defeats Goliath, symbolizes the defense of civil liberties within the western canon. It has become one of the most recognized works of Renaissance sculptures, symbolizing strength and youthful beauty. He also represents the white gaze, white supremacy and European hegemony. “I Am Queen Mary” confronts this notion – representing a heroine that reflects the power of resistance toward the dehumanization of people, fighting against slavery long after slavery was abolished. She also denies the pleasure gaze of her body, which is how bodies and sculptures of women are presented – and even worse with black women. Instead, that position is transferred to David while Queen Mary sits clothed in the seat of power as a vessel for all of these multiple narratives of resistance. In doing so, this project is a step forward in the process of healing the deep wounds of colonialism and creating a conversation around what reparations could look like.